DES MOINES, Iowa – In normal years, Iowa is the center of the political universe during the final stretch before its famed caucuses. Top candidates rumble across the state on multi-city bus tours and hold giant rallies every night. Images of the state's snowy landscape flood television screens.
2020, it turns out, is not a normal year.
The frenetic battle to win the Iowa caucuses has morphed into a steady — some might even say boring — affair.
Many of the leading candidates are stuck in Washington sitting through President Donald Trump's impeachment trial. In their place are surrogates of varying degrees of fame whose job is to keep the energy high enough to convince them to still head to their precinct on Feb. 3 to participate in the caucus. On one especially slow day last week, Andrew Yang was the only presidential candidate in the state.
Television live shots in front of the gold dome of the state Capitol have been replaced with gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate impeachment trial on most cable networks. Some journalists have rearranged their travel to either skip the state or arrive later.
“This is a little bit weird," said Kent Crawford, a retired middle school band director who attended a rally in Dubuque last week for Pete Buttigieg, one of the few events in the state that day. “I can feel it."
Robert Johnson, a Des Moines community activist who has worked for more than a year to register African American voters, is understanding of the competing demands on some candidates — but is growing a bit impatient.
“We are in the fourth quarter of this game and we need all hands on deck. It’s all or nothing at this point," he said. “And at this point the star players have to go to the locker room.”
Briefly freed from the Senate trial, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren returned to Iowa over the weekend to hold major events. Warren attracted hundreds of supporters to Cedar Rapids, the state's second largest city for an event with Jonathan Van Ness, a host of Netflix's “Queer Eye." Sanders, meanwhile, held a massive rally featuring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and filmmaker Michael Moore.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, aren't tied to the Senate trial. They have been a steady presence in the state and are expected to step up their campaigning in the days ahead.
Candidates are planning a final blast of activity this weekend even as it's unclear whether the impeachment trial will allow senators to return. The band Vampire Weekend will perform at a Sanders rally on Saturday. Warren plans a “river to river road trip" that will take her through a half dozen cities across the state over two days.
The absent senators might be most missed by the crush of media professionals who have set up shop in Iowa to report on the last days of the caucus campaign. The Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates more than 2,000 members of the media will work at times out of a caucus headquarters in Des Moines, about triple the number in 2012.
Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats, said he's heard more frustration from reporters than voters.
“We definitely hear the media complaints,” he said. “Some people have waited to come to Iowa for the last two weeks and now nobody's here.”
Still, the caucuses have big implications for Iowa Democrats this year. Even before the impeachment trial upended the campaign, there was growing skepticism of the largely white state's prominent role in selecting a nominee for a party that's increasingly defined by a multiracial coalition. Polling that suggests Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden are in a close race could undermine Iowa's traditional role in picking the ultimate nominee. New rules about how results will be reported could add to even more confusion on caucus night.
Jennifer Konfrst, a state legislator and longtime caucus activist, said people like her probably made up their mind on which candidate to support long ago, but plenty of others are only now getting engaged in the process. Some of those, she said, could miss out on seeing candidates who have had to pare back on their visits.
“They're the ones who are going to be missing an opportunity to hear from some of these candidates," she said.
William Sims, a Des Moines activist and Biden supporter, said the trial ultimately could prompt more Democrats to caucus, calling it “a motivating factor for a lot of people."
A candidate's ability to turn out supporters on caucus night is more important than any single appearance, Sims said, adding that most of the candidates have returned repeatedly to the state.
Or as Kay Hess, an 81-year-old receptionist from Dubuque put it, "People have been campaigning non-stop in Dubuque for a year. That’s intense. It’s a little odd to think some can’t be here, but you can hardly tell.”
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this story from Dubuque, Iowa.
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